A Theory of the Drone
By Grégoire Chamayou
Translated by Janet Lloyd
The New Press, 2015
304 Pages, $26.95
Reviewed by Alan Good


Every American should read A Theory of the Drone by French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou (translated by Janet Lloyd). The theory, in sum, is that the drone is a cowardly weapon that expands the scope and territory of war (war is now like God: everywhere, all-seeing, eternal) and makes the war so one-sided that it should really be called terrorism. It also violates state sovereignty and international law, and makes the people the drones are supposed to protect less safe.

Chamayou does a fine job explaining what is wrong with drones. They require no courage, only a willingness on the part of their operators to potentially sacrifice their mental health and warrior identity. American use of drones in places like Pakistan “constitute grave violations of the laws of war” because “if the special laws of war [like the right to kill] apply only in the place where the fighting takes place, then beyond that place one has no right to behave as a warrior.” Yet, “According to the military and the CIA, it is because we can aim at our targets with precision that we can strike them down wherever we choose, even outside any war zone.” In seeking to protect the lives of American soldiers, he argues, we risk turning ourselves into terrorists (combat is not a long-distance relationship: in order for war to be war, both sides have to be able to kill each other) and turning American civilians into targets: “If the military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach.”

Do drones make Americans safer? It depends on whom you ask, but they probably are good marketing for terrorist recruiters. Chamayou relates a story from a Pakistani Taliban leader who “‘spent three months trying to recruit and only got 10-15 persons. One US attack and I got 150 volunteers.’” Drones may or may not reduce “collateral damage,” the killing of innocent people or noncombatants, but they do not eliminate it. Collateral damage is also good marketing for terrorists.

Murphy’s law applies to technology: anything that can be hacked will be hacked, including American drones. Chamayou only describes one incident in which Iraqi insurgents hacked a Predator drone’s video feed, but he could have included more. Plans for hacking drones are on the Internet. Imagine an American drone under terrorist control attacking American civilians on American soil. People in ISIS are imagining it.

If there’s a weakness in Chamayou’s theory, it is that it’s entirely negative. No doubt there are soldiers whose asses were saved by a timely drone strike who weren’t concerned about jus in bello (“right conduct in war”), just grateful. Chamayou doesn’t call for the abolishment of drones; he also doesn’t address the question of whether drone strikes are ever acceptable in just war. Drones have uses. They can help filmmakers, scientists, and conservationists; it’s clear that over-reliance on drones is wrong, but it is also possible they could have a limited place within warfare, as long as they are used in conjunction with and not as replacements for good soldiers and good intelligence. We need a different drone theory: drones should only be used for good and genuinely humanitarian purposes, not to expand the territory of wars, carry out assassinations, or keep people under constant surveillance, and they won’t be used by American military or police to carry out surveillance or law enforcement in the United States.

It’s easy to love drones: they’re new and fancy and cost-effective (and profitable). Drones are like torture, both unethical and impractical, at least in the long run. Drones and torture are the two most perverse examples of our obsession with instant gratification. They serve us in the short run, and they’re instantly satisfying, but they’ll both do more harm than good. Chamayou cites a New York Times op-ed by David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum; they “called for a moratorium on drone strikes in Pakistan” because “those operations were dangerously counterproductive for American interests. People were congratulating themselves on short-term tactical success without seeing that they would pay dearly for them at a strategic level.”

When it comes to fighting terrorism, there are two competing strategies: counterinsurgency is about winning hearts and minds, and antiterrorism is about blowing heads off. Chamayou says that “Dronized manhunting represents the triumph . . . of antiterrorism over counterinsurgency. According to this logic, the total body count and a list of hunting trophies take the place of a strategic evaluation of the political effects of armed violence.” Antiterrorism is cheaper and easier, but “once antiterrorism overtakes counterinsurgency . . . the sufficient aim becomes a regular elimination of emerging threats.” However, “The very dynamics of its perverse effects prevent it from ever fully decapitating a hydra that regenerates itself ceaselessly as a result of the strategy’s own negativity.” If you scraped off your “Endless War” bumper sticker after George W. Bush returned to Texas, it’s time to invest in another one because “The scenario that looms before us is one of infinite violence . . . .” Chamayou doesn’t mention genocide, but it’s the logical conclusion. In order for antiterrorism to be effective, we have to be willing to commit genocide: the more alleged terrorists we kill, the more we’ll have to kill as new hydra heads pop up to replace the decapitated ones. In order to live with ourselves, we’ll need a softer word than genocide, maybe pre-radicalization elimination.